At Last (The Idle Point, Maine Stories)
Author:Barbara Bretton

chapter Five


He's an old man, Noah realized as his father paced the book-lined study the next morning. When he'd gone off to school in September, his father had been tall and strong, a man in the latter years of his prime. Now, nine months and two heart attacks later, everything had changed. Simon looked as grey and weathered as the town. He walked as if each step required major effort. Only his voice, that deep rich baritone, retained the power Noah remembered.

"... a disappointment," his father was saying. "Your mother and I expect more from you than this juvenile act of rebellion..."

Noah tuned out. He knew the drill. He' d heard it a million times before. It didn't change anything. It didn't mean his father wanted to know one damn thing about his life.

"There are responsibilities that come with being a Chase... we expect excellence... you're very luck to be part... how do we explain... you've disappointed me, Noah... hurt your mother... think about the future..."

When Noah was a little boy, he would have given his pitching arm to be the focus of his old man's undivided attention. His father was a busy man, pillar of the community, owner and editor of the best newspaper in all of New England. He had responsibilities that went far beyond what happened at home. He didn't have time to spend listening to the problems of his small son.

Still Simon Chase had been Noah's idol, more than Superman or Batman or even Carleton Fisk. He didn't want to be a ballplayer or action hero. He wanted to be a newspaperman just like his father. He wanted to stand up for what he believed in and, with his words, make others stand up for it too.

His father had that power. With just black type on white paper, Simon Chase moved mountains. His influence in Idle Point was legendary and, thanks to a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, that influence had been felt around the world, if only briefly.

The staff at the Gazette loved Simon. Noah's chest used to burst with pride each time he saw the way the editors and reporters gathered around his father when he spoke. They hung on his every word. They jumped when he barked out an order. They loved him and they respected him. "He's a great man, your father," Wendell Banning had told Noah after the heart attack at Christmastime when they all thought they were going to lose Simon. "If you turn out to be half the man your father is, you'll be better than most."

Noah didn't deny that when it came to the Gazette his father was a great man but the wide-eyed hero worship of his childhood had given way to bitter acceptance of the fact that he and Simon would never be close. Not in the way he had dreamed about as a little boy.

Simon stopped pacing in front of Noah and looked down at him. "And what do you have to say for yourself?"

Noah shrugged. "Not much." Even less than his father would be willing to hear.

"What are your plans for the summer?"

Okay. Now's your chance. Take a deep breath and go for it. "I'm supposed to start work in Colorado the end of next week."

"Those were your plans before you were expelled from St. Luke's. What are your new plans?"

"I don't have any new plans."

"Then I recommend you come up with some by this time tomorrow."

"What wrong with Colorado?" He knew he was pushing it but he didn't care. It wasn't like Simon had any idea what was going on in his life.

"Out of the question."

"Why?"

"Because I said so."

"Great reason," Noah muttered, slouching lower in his chair.

"I'll thank you to watch yourself, son. As long as you live under my roof, you'll do as I tell you."

Noah couldn't help it. He laughed in his father's face. "I haven't lived under your roof since I was six years old."

Simon looked stricken. "You're my son. This is your home."

"The hell it is." Noah was on his feet, facing down his father in a way he'd never done before. "That cell at St. Luke's was more my home than this place will ever be."

"Don't talk like a fool."

"You think I wanted to be there all by myself? I was scared shitless. I cried myself to sleep that first year."

"You got over it."

"Why did I have to? This house is a fucking hotel and you didn't have room for me."

"I won't tolerate that language while you're under my roof."

"Don't sweat it, Pop," he said. "I'm never under your roof for long."





#





The early years had been everything Simon could have wished for. The long arid desert of his barren marriage had suddenly blossomed with the boy's unexpected arrival and for the first time their house felt like a home.

There had been so many disappointments along the way to that golden time. So many mistakes, so many secrets tucked away in dark corners of the heart. He could still remember the crushing weight of regret, of a grief so black and desperate he thought it would swallow him whole.

Through it all there was Ruth. Steadfast, resolute, more constant than the tides. He had pushed her far away once and she had chosen a path neither one had ever imagined. Who was he to say what was right and wrong? He had never been sure if she forgave him his transgressions or merely found a way to live with them. In truth, he had never asked. She loved him. She always had. And because she loved him, she had come back.

Once, not that long ago, he had been willing to give up everything for love too. His self-respect. His sense of honor. His work. His family. Everything he held dear. He would have walked away and never looked back, not even for the sake of the son he had waited so long to welcome into his life.

But that was a long time ago.

Ruth appeared in the doorway. Her gentle face looked drawn with worry.

"Is everything alright?" she asked. There was nothing jarring about Ruth, nothing loud or vulgar. She was a lady to her marrow. "I heard Noah roar down the driveway."

He told her what had transpired between them. He and Ruth had been together almost forty years. She knew how to read between the lines. He used to love me, Ruthie. He used to look up to me. What happened? Where did it all go so wrong? Why do I keep pushing him away?

"The trip to Colorado would do him good," she said, patting him on the left forearm. "Work off some of those high spirits."

"I'm not going to reward him for being expelled from St. Luke's."

"Hard work is scarcely a reward," she pointed out.

"No," he said. "Is a summer at home such an inhuman punishment?"

"He was looking forward to working on that ranch."

"He can work here."

"You know that isn't the same, Simon. His friends will be on the ranch."

"His future is here in Idle Point."

Ruth sighed. "There's time enough for that," she said gently.

"It's time now, Ruth," he said. "It's time our son came home."





#





Ruth couldn't shake the sense of foreboding that settled across her shoulders. Simon went upstairs to rest while she wandered through the house, unable to settle down to her correspondence or her reading or anything else. Twice their new cook Greta asked if she could fix Ruth a pot of tea but both times she had brushed off the poor woman with the merest shake of her head. Her mind was elsewhere.

For over ten years she had dreamed of having her son home to stay, only to discover that the reality of it filled her with unease.

Gracie.

Mona Taylor's sad-eyed daughter. Who would ever have imagined that plain brown-haired girl would catch the eye of Ruth's golden son? He had been filled with talk of Gracie last night as mother and son sat together on the front porch. How hard she worked, how capable she was, how smart, how funny. There was a quality of innocence about Noah as he spoke of Mona's girl that struck terror in Ruth's heart.

Life wouldn't be that cruel.

She had always harbored a deep affection for Gracie. She could still remember the feel of that tiny fragile hand in hers on those afternoon walks home from kindergarten. Del had been working for the Chases back then and with Ben Taylor being the way he was, Gracie had needed a place to stay until her grandmother was ready to leave for home. How Ruth had loved seeing Gracie bent over a coloring book at the kitchen table while Noah built a skyscraper at her feet. Sometimes Ruth pretended they were both her children and the feeling of joy in her heart was so intense that it stole her breath away.

More and more, the young people were striking out from Idle Point to make their living in Boston or Hartford or maybe even New York. The Gazette was losing subscribers and Simon seemed distracted and worried which meant Ruth saw very little of her husband. When she wasn't volunteering at the hospital, she was often at the school, overseeing one of the Chase family's many bequests. She used to find Gracie curled in a wing chair near the window, engrossed in Dr. Seuss or one of the many Golden Books available. She had felt awkward around Gracie after that incident with the Christmas sweater, unsure just how much the little girl knew about the situation between Simon and Ben, so more often than not she disappeared back into the shadows without saying hello.

But how Gracie's face lit up each time she saw Ruth. The poor little thing had been starving for a woman's touch. For a mother. Ben had gone off and gotten himself married again right after that terrible Christmas; he and Nora Fahey had moved up the coast to pursue a job possibility for Ben, leaving Gracie home with her Gramma Del. Ruth and Del had worked out a way to care for Gracie but still keep her presence in the Chase home a secret from Simon.

Sometimes Ruth felt like she was drowning in secrets.

Be grateful for what you have, Ruth.

She thought about the monthly letter she had posted like clockwork, letters filled with love and pride for Noah and more guilt than she could sometimes bear. The life she might have had written clearly between the lines.

How often had she cautioned herself over the years to give thanks, to be satisfied. Be grateful for the blessings she had been given and not the blessings she had been denied. She was a fortunate woman. She lived well and without worry in the big house on the hill. She had friends who cared for her, charity work that fulfilled her, a son whose existence was a miracle.

And she still had Simon.

He loved Noah more than the boy realized. Noah was the reason Simon got up in the morning, the reason he kept the Gazette running. Noah gave meaning to every breath he took. When Simon had had that first heart attack at Christmas time, it was Noah who made him fight his way back when it seemed as if the end was at hand. What they were experiencing now was classic father-son behavior. Two male lions fighting for dominance. One, an aging patriarch; the other, a fierce young hunter. What they both needed was space and time for it all to work itself out naturally.

Nothing good would come of forcing the boy to remain in Idle Point this summer. Nothing good would come of forcing him to work at the Gazette. Simon was wrong in this and she would wait a few days for the situation to cool down, then tell him exactly that. There would still be plenty of time to get Noah to Colorado.

The truth was, Ruth wouldn't rest until he was gone.





#





Everyone was either still asleep or already working, Noah thought as he drove down the main drag and headed out toward the highway. The only person he'd seen was Laquita Adams coming out of the old motor court next to Eb's Stop & Pump. He'd heard the stories about Laquita when he was home for Christmas but he hadn't wanted to believe them. The sight of her in last night's clothes and last night's makeup as she stumbled toward her car gave him an unsettled feeling in the pit of his stomach.

He remembered her as a round-faced girl with pretty dark hair and a soft manner. Smart, but quiet about it. All caught up with her houseful of brothers and sisters who seemed to be in her care one way or the other. They said her parents were kind people but forgetful. Once a baby was out of diapers, they turned all of their attentions to the next one in line.

"Wonder what they'd do if they didn't have Laquita around?" Don had said the other night when they met up with each other near the bowling alley.

It looked to Noah like they didn't have Laquita around all the time, not if she spent the night with Rick from the hardware store. What the hell was she thinking? The guy was old enough to be her father.

He caught up with Don near the bowling alley and linked up with a crowd of almost-familiar faces. Don had pretty much caught him up with who'd been doing what around town. It sounded like Laquita slept with anybody who asked which was her business even if it was wrecking her reputation.

Funny thing, Noah worrying about someone's reputation. He'd been going out of his way to trash his own rep since the day he first left Idle Point. Tim and Joe were working at the supermarket. Terri and Joann fried burgers beneath the golden arches while Ethan took orders over at Patsy's luncheonette. They all acted like they were glad to see Noah again but it was clear they viewed him as an outsider, even though he'd been born there same as they had. He couldn't blame them. He didn't feel much of a connection himself.

Don's parents owned a fishing boat and Don went out with his father every morning during summer vacation. He told Noah he could go with them. All he had to do was be down at the docks by four a.m. Noah liked him, mainly because Don didn't seem to care that Noah was Simon's son. He liked Noah despite that fact. Don didn't sweat the small stuff like whose father did what for a living. He worked hard and played hard and figured everyone else did the same. "We go over to Hidden Island just about every night," he had told Noah as they walked toward their cars after the bowling alley closed. "Bring a six-pack with you and you're in."

Noah grinned as he considered the idea. It would piss off his father big time. His son and heir chugging beer with the locals on Hidden Island, the most notorious makeout spot between here and Kittery. The only thing that would piss him off more than that would be if Noah found himself a minimum wage job right there in town. A job that wasn't at the Gazette.

No doubt about it. That would be a first-class ticket out of there.

He could pump gas for Eb at the Stop & Pump or maybe bag groceries for the summer people at the new Food Basket at the corner of Main and Dock Streets. He could caddy for the old farts at the club or, even better, shovel dog shit like Gracie. That appealed to him. Not the dog shit part, but he liked Doctor Jim and being around Gracie didn't sound half-bad.

Besides, give it two weeks and he'd be on his way to Colorado.





#





Gracie jumped at the sound of Doctor Jim's voice.

"What is with you, young lady?" he asked as she bent down to retrieve the syringe she'd dropped. "You're more nervous than Jasper Dawson's hound the day he was fixed."

"Just clumsy, I guess." She disposed of the syringe in the special receptacle then reached for a new one. The Siamese on the table in front of her meowed nervously. "I'm sorry, Lady," she said, bending down and kissing the cat on top of its head. "You should be glad Doctor Jim's giving you the injection."

"If I didn't know better," said Doctor Jim as he took the new syringe from her, "I'd think you had a boy on your mind."

She laughed but it didn't sound quite as convincing as she might have hoped. "Who has time?" she countered. "You run me ragged around here."

Gracie whispered soothingly to the protesting cat while Doctor Jim quickly administered the shot.

"The Chases' boy has certainly grown up, hasn't he?"

Gracie gathered up Lady in her arms and feigned temporary deafness.

"I hear all the girls in town are buzzing now that he's back."

"I'm glad they have time to buzz," Gracie snapped. "I have more important things on my mind." She quickly turned away so he wouldn't see that she was blushing the color of the Idle Point Volunteer Fire Department's one and only engine. "I'm going to put Lady back in her cage."

She hurried toward the back of the building where the boarding kennels were located. If Doctor Jim knew that Noah Chase had called her at work a little while ago and asked her to meet him for lunch she'd never hear the end of it. He'd probably think it was a date or something stupid like that and blow it all out of proportion. It wasn't a date, she told herself. Dates called you a few days in advance. They came to your house and picked you and up and met your family. They didn't call you at 10:22 on a Wednesday morning and say, "Why don't we grab a lobstah roll at Andy's and sit out on the rocks?" The sound of Maine was still there in his voice and it made her smile.

"I don't care if it's a date or not," she told Lady as she made the animal comfortable then locked the cage securely. She was going to have lunch with Noah. That was all that was important.

She was on her feet and heading for the door at the stroke of noon. "Lock up for me, Martin," she asked the lab technician. "I have an errand to run."

Her hands shook as she applied eye shadow and mascara in the car. She ran a brush through her hair, wishing she were blond and blue-eyed and beautiful. Why hadn't she worn something more appealing than her favorite pair of threadbare jeans and a green tank top. Her sneakers looked terrible, worn and stained. She kicked them off. She didn't have much going for her, but she did have nice feet. She fumbled around in the glove compartment and pulled out a bottle of hot pink nail polish. Maybe she could dazzle him with her pedicure. She wondered if there was time to race home and change then decided against it. No matter what she did she wasn't about to transform herself into the type of girl who could attract someone like Noah. It just wasn't going to happen.

She'd been in her element at Doctor Jim's office. She drew her strength from animals, caring for them, learning what made them tick. People were more problematic by far. Take her out of the animal hospital and put her in Noah's world and she'd be in big trouble.

"It's not a date," she told herself as she started the car.

"It's not a date," she repeated as she zoomed toward Andy's Dockside Shack, Home of the World's Best Lobster Roll.

"It's not a date," she whispered as she pulled into a parking spot.

Then she saw him and once again she was lost.





#





The first thing Noah noticed when Gracie climbed out of her car was her smile. She had beautiful teeth, perfect and even and white, and her smile was wide and genuine. He'd seen the other kind and he knew the difference.

The second thing he noticed was her body. She was long and lean and graceful, strong and still feminine. He liked the way her waist curved in and her hips flared out and the way her legs seemed to go on forever. Her hair was a deep rich brown—he hadn't realized how beautiful it was yesterday when he saw her in the office—and it shimmered with red and gold highlights in the sun. Her breasts were small and round and they jiggled softly with each step. He felt every step deep in the pit of his belly, an awareness that shook him right down to his shoes.

She wasn't the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen but she did something to him no girl had ever done before: she made him feel unsure of himself, as if he'd have to try harder somehow to make her happy. As if making her happy was the only thing in the world worth doing.

Then he caught himself.

This isn't a date moron. You just want to ask her about a job.

Somehow he seemed to have forgotten that fact in the time it took for her to walk from her car to where he stood leaning against the side of Andy's Shack.

"Sorry I'm late," she said as she approached. "Mrs. Daggett showed up with one of her Siamese and..." Her words dissolved into soft laughter and Noah found himself laughing with her even though he didn't get the joke.

She wasn't like anyone he'd ever known. Her jeans were patched, her feet were bare, but her toenails were polished a glossy hot pink. She smelled of soap and shampoo and faintly of Siamese and the combination dazzled him.

"I ordered you a lobstah roll," he said, wincing at the way he said lobster. They used to tease him at St. Luke's about that. "I figured you'd be short on time."

"Great," she said, smiling up at him as if a lobster roll was the best thing going. "Lemonade too?"

"If you want."

"A big one," she said, "with lots of ice."

He grinned. "Anything else?"

"Not right now but you never know."

Joey Anderson, whose mother taught at Idle Point Elementary, had Noah's order waiting for him. "You're with Gracie Taylor?" he asked as he rang up the bill.

Noah grunted something noncommittal and handed Joey a ten-dollar bill.

"Gracie's a good kid," Joey said, "but real serious about things. If you're looking for a good time, why don't you row over to Hidden Island one night. The whole crowd's there. Just make sure you—"

"Bring a six-pack," Noah said, pocketing the change. "Don told me."

"Hey, Joey." Gracie joined them. She reached for the drinks and some paper napkins. "How're you doing?"

"Could use some days off, that's for sure." He grinned at Gracie and Noah found himself moving a step closer to her. "Any chance you'll be at Joann's party tomorrow night?"

Gracie shook her head. "I'm on late shift tomorrow but I'll be thinking about you."

"You're invited too," Joey said to Noah. "You can bring someone if you want." He looked from Gracie to Noah then shrugged. "Or not. Whatever."

If the invitation made Gracie uncomfortable, she gave no sign of it.

Noah followed Gracie across the parking lot and out onto the beach. The tide was low, exposing the rounded backs of rocks that had been around long before the Chases or anyone else discovered Idle Point. It was what he liked most about the beach; the fact that it belonged to nobody but itself.

"Be careful," Gracie called over her shoulder. "The rocks are slippery."

"Yeah," he said. "I've noticed." Twice he'd almost landed on his ass.

Not Gracie. Her bare feet gripped the rocks as she walked like she was born to it. A brisk wind was blowing in from the ocean and her slender body bent into it like a willow. No missteps, no awkwardness. She didn't spill a drop of lemonade. He wanted to stop in his tracks and just watch her move. The idea made him feel hot with embarrassment and something else, something deeply unsettling, that he couldn't identify. Or maybe he didn't want to. He never thought things like that. A girl was pretty or not. She had a great bod or she didn't. She was fun to be around or a total drag. He'd never wanted to stop time so he could watch a girl walk in the sunshine.





#





Gracie found them a spot on a boulder halfway between Andy's Shack and the water.

"Here?" Noah asked. He didn't sound very enthusiastic about it.

"Sure," she said, settling down on the leeward side. "If we're quiet and don't disturb them, the seagulls will land near us and crack open clams and mussels while we eat."

"That's a good thing?"

She grinned up at him. "I think so." Funny how she felt more sure of herself here on the beach than she'd felt just minutes ago in the parking lot. "I love low tide," she said as he sat down next to her. "It's like watching the ocean reveal all of her secrets."

"All I see is dead fish."

"I see dead fish too, but there's so much more if you know where to look." She caught herself and shook her head. "Sorry. Like you really want to know my thoughts on low tide at Idle Point."

"Maybe I do," he said and there was something in his tone of voice that made her heartbeat leap forward. "I don't know a whole lot about low tide at Idle Point."

His voice was deep and the sound of it made her feel the way she did on nights when the moon was high. A little wild. A little crazy. Not at all like her careful, cautious self. She'd never felt this way before and it scared her. She'd seen enough of life to know what kind of trouble a girl could get into if she let herself follow her emotions. Her father was like that, making decisions spurred by demons she'd never understood. She'd watched him bring home one wife after another, searching in vain for the happiness he'd known with her mother.

But she wasn't her father. Her feet were planted firmly on the rocky shoreline of Idle Point. She wasn't about to let her life take her by surprise. She had plans for her future and she knew how to make her dreams come true. She also knew she should take a giant step away from Noah Chase right now but she couldn't move. Or maybe it was that she wouldn't move. Not while the boy she'd loved since she was five and a half years old was only inches away from her.

He asked questions about the docks and the fishing and she found herself telling him more than he ever wanted to know about the history of lighthouses. He even remembered Sam the Cat, then laughed when Gracie told him her official name was now Samantha the Dowager Queen of Idle Point

"You love it here," he said.

"It's my home."

"It's my home too," he said, "but I don't feel much of anything for it."

"Big surprise." She took a sip of lemonade. "You haven't really lived here since we were in kindergarten."

"Remember when you used to come home with me after school? I wanted to show you my stuff but—"

"Your father wouldn't let you." She bit off a piece of lobster roll and chewed slowly.

"You knew about that?"

"Gramma Del told me. I kept bugging her about why I couldn't see your electric train set." She kicked his ankle lightly. "Don't look so embarrassed. It's not like it was a big secret or anything."

"I never could figure it out. I mean, it's not like my old man is that big a snob."

Gracie laughed. "I'm not so sure about that."

"I had some of the other kids over and—" He muttered an oath. "Sorry, Gracie. I didn't mean to hurt you."

"Old news," she said. "I don't know what their problem is but my family doesn't like yours any better your family likes mine." Who cared what they thought anyway? It all seemed as far away and unimportant as the price of tea in China. The only thing that mattered was that Noah was back in Idle Point, sitting right here beside her on a sunny afternoon in June.

They watched quietly as a seagull landed a few feet away from them and began to hammer at a clam with his long, sharp beak. When that didn't work the gull picked up the clam and flew a lazy circle around the spot before dropping the clam onto the rocks below. The clamshell shattered open and the bird returned to enjoy his feast.

Gracie laughed softly as another seagull tried to steal the bounty but was scared away in a flurry of squawking and ruffled feathers. "Gramma Del used to take me down to the beach when I was little. We'd walk along the shore and she'd teach me the names of the birds and the different shellfish."

"She taught me the phases of the moon," Noah said, "and all about the tides. The house isn't the same without Del."

"She doesn't think we should be friends." She regretted the words the second she uttered them.

"I thought she liked me." He sounded hurt and Gracie couldn't stop herself from placing her hand on his forearm.

"She used to," Gracie said. "She thinks you might be trouble."

"She might be right."

"And she might be wrong."

"Don't bet on it."

He looked so sad when he said those words that Gracie felt compelled to explain. "Gramma Del worries. She just doesn't want me to spend time with any guy."

"Neither do I."

His words hung in the air between them. He looked down to where her fingers rested lightly against his skin. She thought about moving her hand away but didn't. The breeze off the ocean was sweet and soft against her bare arms and legs. They stayed locked in position for what seemed like forever and then Noah leaned closer to Gracie and Gracie moved nearer to Noah and the lemonades and lobster rolls and lighthouses were all forgotten.

He kissed her the way she had dreamed of being kissed, with strength and tenderness and a yearning that matched her own. Her lips parted slightly. He touched his tongue to hers, sweetly... so sweetly that she felt herself melt against him even though she hadn't moved an inch.

The kiss lasted only a few seconds but those seconds changed their lives forever.